Engaging Ideas

October 1, 2007

 

Welcome words: Brodhead exhorted first-year students to contribute to their communities, strive for educational excellence, and seek opportunities for engagement

Welcome words: Brodhead exhorted first-year students to contribute to their communities, strive for educational excellence, and seek opportunities for engagement. Megan Morr

This is an edited version of the address President Brodhead delivered to freshmen and their parents at convocation in late August.

Class of 2011, you're together at last. As recently as March, you were total strangers randomly distributed across this country and the world, with nothing in common but great promise. On the day we accepted you and you had the good sense to choose Duke, these strangers became a potential community, since you would one day converge on the same destination. This summer you have done little else but meet and greet in cyberspace, so you arrive not strangers but virtual friends. But now comes the real thing, the assembly of a critical mass of highly combustible talent, the Duke freshman class, 1,700 strong, ready to befriend one another and spark each other to an explosion of personal growth.

As for the parents and families, I know this is a time of strangely mixed emotions. Your child has entered one of the world's great universities. It doesn't get better than that. And that ungrateful wretch has abandoned you and left home to start another life. I feel your pain, but I want to warn you, things will get worse. A mother reported that toward the end of our rather extended Christmas vacation, as the time approached for her freshman son to return to Duke, he casually remarked, oblivious to the damage to her feelings: "I've really enjoyed being with the family, but I'm about ready to go back home."

Well, that's the point. For every student, that's what Duke is about to become: your home, the place where you belong, the place where others know you and care about you, the place that nourishes your growth of self.

Like other universities, we talk about the first few days in the language of orientation. As you know, orientation is a compass word—orient means the East, from oriri, to rise; and the word suggests that you'll be lost in space, disoriented, until you learn the coordinates for charting your way. You'll learn many things the first week, but my job could be to name the cardinal points of Duke's compass, the values you'll need to observe to navigate this new world. As with the compass, there are four.

Ties that bind: Despite the emotional toll of saying good-bye to their families, students were assured by Brodhead that Duke would become "the place where you belong"

Ties that bind: Despite the emotional toll of saying good-bye to their families, students were assured by Brodhead that Duke would become "the place where you belong". Megan Morr

First, Duke is a place for excellence. Whether it's on our famous athletic teams or our no-less-famous research teams, this place becomes Duke to the extent that people recognize the difference between the best and the very good and are willing to work the extra measure to achieve the best.

Second, Duke is a place of community. Duke is different from some places where people are driven to outstanding achievement in that, at Duke, it's not about doing better than someone else. This is an amazingly friendly place, a place where people of extraordinarily various backgrounds learn to accomplish things together they couldn't achieve on their own. It's a place where people take the trouble to challenge each other, to support each other, to respect each other, and to enjoy each other. You will find it so. Help keep it so!

Third, everything we do at Duke is done for the sake of education. By education we mean something far beyond formal course-enrollment or transcript-building. We mean the continual deepening of your grasp of the world and strengthening of your capacities to act intelligently in that world. Please don't settle for a lesser goal. If you have a smaller aim, you'll get a Duke degree, but you won't get a Duke education.

Excellence pursued as a community toward the end of ongoing education —that's a fair description of Duke's project. But my fourth value is as important as any other, since without it there's no reaching the other three. With my current fondness for the letter E, I'll call it engagement. To give the flavor of what I mean, let me tell a true story.

I have office hours most weeks in the President's Office and students somewhat randomly come by—in the best version, not for any official reason, but just to chat. Last winter two undergraduates, perfect strangers to me, came by within an hour of each other. The first, a freshman—by chance it was a woman, though I've had many such chats with men—was somewhat disappointed after her first term at Duke. Had she found interesting classes? Yes, her academics had been just as she hoped. Had she found friends? Yes, and good ones. But she had not found enough to do here, wasn't attracted to some of the pastimes other students favored, and in general was feeling a little down.

We had a thoughtful conversation, and I was sympathetic, even though some part of me knew that every student in the history of the world had passed through moods like this. (I certainly did.) She knew it, too. At the end of our chat, she brightened, and told me she had friends who were upperclassmen who told her they had passed through such phases, but things had worked out for them, and she expected they would for her as well.

This was still fresh in my mind when a second student came in, a sophomore, by chance a young man, though I have had many such conversations with Duke women. In two seconds we were off and running. Me: What led you into engineering? He, after giving an interesting reply: Did I like the novels of Cormac MacCarthy? Me: Yes, though Blood Meridian was hard to take. He: And had I read The Road? Yes, I just had; an extraordinary piece of writing and envisioning that we discussed in some detail. He: By the way, did I know about the Duke Conversations program—a program by which groups of students get to invite interesting people to campus and sit down with them for small-group discussion? (In fact, I did know about this program, since I helped create it.) He'd found that an especially interesting and enjoyable part of his life and supplied some details. Oh, and by the way: What did I think about the charter-school movement? Me: Why do you ask? He: Oh, I took a course in the Forging Social Ideals FOCUS program and did a project on charter schools and got very interested in them, and why different people support and oppose them, and what's going on with schools in Durham, etc., etc. It's now widely recognized how crucial the quality of elementary education is to America's competitive future, and whether such education can be delivered through reformed versions of existing schools or only through alternative models is a key topic for debate. We went at it for a while, and then our time was up.

Now, I'm not pretending that I knew either of these characters thoroughly at the end of twenty minutes, and on a different day, I might have caught each of them in a very different state. But by complete chance, their visits put before me two very different versions of a Duke experience—one defined by a sense of waiting for things that seemed missing, the other full to bursting with interests and involvements. It matters which you end up with. One of these lives sounded like a lot more fun to live, and not by coincidence, one sounded like it had a lot more education going on in it. So let's stop and try to understand where the difference arose.

To me, the most striking fact is that it was not a function of external circumstance. These two students were attending the same university and had all the same realities and opportunities surrounding them. If one was getting a lot more from this place, including a lot more satisfaction, it's because that person was engaging it much more vigorously: subjecting Duke to a higher level of internal activism, adding his or her own enterprise, curiosity, and creativity to the mix. Duke Conversations? This is still a growing program, but under its auspices, Duke students have had a chance to sit down (among others) with liberal and conservative national political advisers, inventors, and critics of the new media, and, closer to home, Duke faculty members from across the university, for intimate conversation. I promise you, you could learn something from people of these sorts! But it took initiative to connect with this program: As they say of the lottery: You've got to play to win.

Similarly with the charter-school business. A Duke sophomore was able to sit with me and talk intelligently about one of the complex and consequential issues of current American society (this is not a rare experience for me) partly because he had taken a course—but far more because, instead of just doing the homework and collecting the grade, he'd invested the work of the course with his personal curiosity, used the class to help him know more about something he wanted to understand, and carried his active inquiry on long after the course was completed. (I can't pass up the chance to mention that this male engineering student had this experience in a class taught by a professor of Women's Studies.) As for Cormac MacCarthy, even in the days of iPods and YouTube, educated people still can and do read books, and not just books someone else assigned them. Let your curiosity do the driving, and you'll always have somewhere interesting to go. 

My point is this: You've come to a place extraordinarily rich in opportunities. But like certain famous energy sources, Duke's offerings will remain inert until something is added to start the reaction. The missing ingredient is your personal engagement, your taking the initiative to seek and seize opportunities and to charge them with your energies of mind. I'm not asking that you just keep busy. Being tightly scheduled is not the same thing as being engaged. And I'm not asking that you model your life on anyone else's. The proof that you're engaged will be that your Duke career will have its own distinctive plot, driven by your gifts, your passions, your concerns. But if you don't make it your business to activate this place with your interests, then a lot of Duke will just be nice scenery—which is great, but you could be more than a tourist.

Your class will be the first to have full access to something highly relevant to what I'm describing—the program called (did you guess it?) DukeEngage. We want to challenge you (and will assist you) to find ways to complement your academic study with involvement in real-world problem solving, in settings reaching from Durham around the world. I could see future versions of you in the Duke students who used their public-policy training this summer to help complete a crucial study for the government of New Orleans, where officials singled them out for their vital role helping the city qualify for $300 million in federal disaster funding. Or I could see you in the premed major, a noted member of our women's basketball team, whose blog I've followed while she worked in the highlands of Guatemala introducing small stoves into areas that previously cooked on minimally ventilated indoor fires, causing high levels of  respiratory disease.

We see this program as a triple winner. First, it helps Duke students get out into the world and learn the problems and prospects of national and global cultures firsthand. Second, students often become more deeply invested in their academic work when they see how things learned here can be brought to bear on lived human challenges. And third, such opportunities help Duke students learn their power to make a difference, and to put their knowledge in service to society.

DukeEngage will make a great complement to the education we give on campus. But being engaged means more than signing up for a program with the word in the title. Nor is this the only way to fulfill my charge. I'm inviting you to see every chance that comes to you every day as something you could meet either in a more active or in a more detached fashion; and this includes your dealings with one another. Colleges have no greater joy than the endlessly fresh, utterly unforeseen ways that groups of students come together to do things just because they seem as if they would be good or fun to do—play sports, make films, plan concerts or comedy shows, join neighborhood service programs. This group creativity is a source of exuberant delight, but it's also more than that. The literature of global competitiveness suggests that the people who will have most success in the future won't be those who have mastered fixed skills but those deeply practiced in a flexible, enterprising, self-activating creativity, and in pulling teams together across boundaries to improvise ways to solve problems or capture opportunities. When I see all the student-driven activity on this campus, I see people mastering these crucial skills. So if you hang back, if you don't mix it up with all the miscellaneous human talent that now surrounds you, then you're going to lose both short- and long-term: Your present life will be less interesting, and your future powers will stay undeveloped.

When I ask you to engage with one another, I'm talking about pooling your creativity, but also enlarging one another's understanding. I met an incoming freshman this summer from Cary, North Carolina, a rapidly growing suburb half an hour from here, who told me her roommate was coming from Bulgaria, which is farther away. Each of you will now be in close contact with people from as far away from wherever you've called home as Cary is from Bulgaria, in geographical or cultural or religious or other forms of distance. (In this country, there are parts of the political spectrum that are at least this far apart in terms of ability to grasp the thinking on the other side of the divide.) We want you to come together to create a common Duke culture that you will all be at home in, and I don't doubt you will. But it would be a loss if drawing together kept you from learning from one another's differences. You'll be way better prepared when you leave Duke if you know how to appreciate the different thinking of many more branches of the human family than you know today, and the people sitting around you could give you the means. But this won't happen unless you reach out, open yourselves to each other, and struggle to grasp the human lesson that every other person here embodies.

Class of 2011, I have another idea how to alarm your families. Why don't you call them some day and say, "Mom! Dad! Congratulate me! I'm engaged!" Depending on how you mean this, the news could be quite welcome. You could be saying that you had mastered the first lesson of Duke, the one that opens the door to all the others. A great experience awaits you, but more than you have probably imagined, the value of that experience is yours to determine. Invest this place with the full measure of your curiosity, intelligence, creativity, and human warmth, and the returns will be, as they say, priceless. We want you not just to attend Duke but to own it. Last spring we admitted you. Now it's time to take possession.